Episode 389: Updates 7 and the Lava Bear

It’s our annual updates episode! Thanks to Kelsey and Torin for the extra information about ultraviolet light, and thanks to Caleb for suggesting we learn more about the dingo!

Further reading:

At Least 125 Species of Mammals Glow under Ultraviolet Light, New Study Reveals

DNA has revealed the origin of this giant ‘mystery’ gecko

Bootlace Worm: Earth’s Longest Animal Produces Powerful Toxin

Non-stop flight: 4,200 km transatlantic flight of the Painted Lady butterfly mapped

Gigantopithecus Went Extinct between 295,000 and 215,000 Years Ago, New Study Says

First-Ever Terror Bird Footprints Discovered

Last surviving woolly mammoths were inbred but not doomed to extinction

Australian Dingoes Are Early Offshoot of Modern Breed Dogs, Study Shows

A (badly) stuffed lava bear:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we have our annual updates episode, and we’ll also learn about a mystery animal called the lava bear! As usual, a reminder that I don’t try to update everything we’ve ever talked about. That would be impossible. I just pick new information that is especially interesting.

After our episode about animals and ultraviolet light, I got a great email from Kelsey and Torin with some information I didn’t know. I got permission to quote the email, which I think you’ll find really interesting too:

You said humans can’t see UV light, which is true, however humans can detect UV light via neuropsin (a non-visual photoreceptor in the retina). These detectors allow the body to be signaled that it’s time to do things like make sex-steroid hormones, neurotransmitters, etc. (Spending too much time indoors results in non-optimal hormone levels, lowered neurotransmitter production, etc.)

Humans also have melanopsin detectors in the retina and skin. Melanopsin detectors respond to blue light. Artificial light (LEDs, flourescents, etc) after dark entering the eye or shining on the skin is sensed by these proteins as mid-day daylight. This results in an immediate drop in melatonin production when it should be increasing getting closer to bedtime.”

And that’s why you shouldn’t look at your phone at night, which I am super bad about doing.

Our first update is related to ultraviolet light. A study published in October of 2023 examined hundreds of mammals to see if any part of their bodies glowed in ultraviolet light, called fluorescence. More than 125 of them did! It was more common in nocturnal animals that lived on land or in trees, and light-colored fur and skin was more likely to fluoresce than darker fur or skin. The white stripes of a mountain zebra, for example, fluoresce while the black stripes don’t.

The study was only carried out on animals that were already dead, many of them taxidermied. To rule out that the fluorescence had something to do with chemicals used in taxidermy, they also tested specimens that had been flash-frozen after dying, and the results were the same. The study concluded that ultraviolet fluorescence is actually really common in mammals, we just didn’t know because we can’t see it. The glow is typically faint and may appear pink, green, or blue. Some other animals that fluoresce include bats, cats, flying squirrels, wombats, koalas, Tasmanian devils, polar bears, armadillos, red foxes, and even the dwarf spinner dolphin.

In episode 20 we talked about Delcourt’s giant gecko, which is only known from a single museum specimen donated in the 19th century. In 1979 a herpetologist named Alain Delcourt, working in the Marseilles Natural History Museum in France, noticed a big taxidermied lizard in storage and wondered what it was. It wasn’t labeled and he didn’t recognize it, surprising since it was the biggest gecko he’d ever seen—two feet long, or about 60 cm. He sent photos to several reptile experts and they didn’t know what it was either. Finally the specimen was examined and in 1986 it was described as a new species.

No one knew anything about the stuffed specimen, including where it was caught. At first researchers thought it might be from New Caledonia since a lot of the museum’s other specimens were collected from the Pacific Islands. None of the specimens donated between 1833 and 1869 had any documentation, so it seemed probable the giant gecko was donated during that time and probably collected not long before. More recently there was speculation that it was actually from New Zealand, since it matched Maori lore about a big lizard called the kawekaweau.

In June of 2023, Delcourt’s gecko was finally genetically tested and determined to belong to a group of geckos from New Caledonia, an archipelago of islands east of Australia. Many of its close relations are large, although not as large as it is. It’s now been placed into its own genus.

Of course, this means that Delcourt’s gecko isn’t the identity of the kawekaweau, since it isn’t very closely related to the geckos of New Zealand, but it might mean the gecko still survives in remote parts of New Caledonia. It was probably nocturnal and lived in trees, hunting birds, lizards, and other small animals.

We talked about some really big worms in episode 289, but somehow I missed the longest worm of all. It’s called the bootlace worm and is a type of ribbon worm that lives off the coast of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Britain, and it’s one of the longest animals alive. The longest worm we talked about in episode 289 was an African giant earthworm, and one was measured in 1967 as 21 feet long, or 6.7 meters. The bootlace worm is only 5 to 10 mm wide, but it routinely grows between 15 and 50 feet long, or 5 to 15 meters, with one dead specimen that washed ashore in Scotland in 1864 measured as over 180 feet long, or 55 meters.

When it feels threatened, the bootlace worm releases thick mucus. The mucus smells bad to humans but it’s not toxic to us or other mammals, but a recent study revealed that it contains toxins that can kill crustaceans and even some insects.

We talked about the painted lady butterfly in episode 203, which was about insect migrations. The painted lady is a small, pretty butterfly that lives throughout much of the world, even the Arctic, but not South America for some reason. Some populations stay put year-round, but some migrate long distances. One population winters in tropical Africa and travels as far as the Arctic Circle during summer, a distance of 4,500 miles, or 7,200 km, which takes six generations. The butterflies who travel back to Africa fly at high altitude, unlike monarch butterflies that fly quite low to the ground most of the time. Unlike the monarch, painted ladies don’t always migrate every year.

In October of 2013, a researcher in a small country in South America called French Guiana found some painted lady butterflies on the beach. Gerard Talavera was visiting from Spain when he noticed the butterflies, and while he recognized them immediately, he knew they weren’t found in South America. But here they were! There were maybe a few dozen of them and he noticed that they all looked pretty raggedy, as though they’d flown a long way. He captured several to examine more closely.

A genetic study determined that the butterflies weren’t from North America but belonged to the groups found in Africa and Europe. The question was how did they get to South America? Talavera teamed up with scientists from lots of different disciplines to figure out the mystery. Their findings were only published last month, in June 2024.

The butterflies most likely rode a well-known wind current called the Saharan air layer, which blows enough dust from the Sahara to South America that it has an impact on the Amazon River basin. The trip from Africa to South America would have taken the butterflies 5 to 8 days, and they would have been able to glide most of the time, thus conserving energy. Until this study, no one realized the Saharan air layer could transport insects.

We talked about the giant great ape relation Gigantopithecus in episode 348, and only a few months later a new study found that it went extinct 100,000 years earlier than scientists had thought. The study tested the age of the cave soils where Gigantopithecus teeth have been discovered, to see how old it was, and tested the teeth again too. As we talked about in episode 348, Gigantopithecus ate fruit and other plant material, and because it was so big it would have needed a lot of it. It lived in thick forests, but as the overall climate changed around 700,000 years ago, the forest environment changed too. Other great apes living in Asia at the time were able to adapt to these changes, but Gigantopithecus couldn’t find enough food to sustain its population. It went extinct between 295,000 and 215,000 years ago according to the new study, which is actually later than I had in episode 348, where I wrote that it went extinct 350,000 years ago. Where did I get my information? I do not know.

The first footprints of a terror bird were discovered recently in Argentina, dating to 8 million years ago. We talked about terror birds in episode 202. The footprints were made by a medium-sized bird that was walking across a mudflat, and the track is beautifully preserved, which allows scientists to determine lots of new information, such as how fast the bird could run, how its toes would have helped it run or catch prey, and how heavy the bird was. We don’t know what species of terror bird made the tracks, but we know it was a terror bird.

We talked about the extinction of the mammoth in episode 256, especially the last population of mammoths to survive. They lived on Wrangel Island, a mountainous island in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of western Siberia, which was cut off from the mainland about 10,000 years ago when ocean levels rose. Mammoths survived on the island until about 4,000 years ago, which is several hundred years after the Great Pyramid of Giza was built. It’s kind of weird to imagine ancient Egyptians building pyramids, and at the same time, mammoths were quietly living on Wrangel Island, and the Egyptians had no idea what mammoths were. And vice versa.

A 2017 genetic study stated that the last surviving mammoths were highly inbred and prone to multiple genetic issues as a result. But a study released in June of 2024 reevaluated the population’s genetic diversity and made a much different determination. The population did show inbreeding and low genetic diversity, but not to an extent that it would have affected the individuals’ health. The population was stable and healthy right to the end.

In that case, why did the last mammoths go extinct? Humans arrived on the island for the first time around 1700 BCE, but we don’t know if they encountered mammoths or, if they did, if they killed any. There’s no evidence either way. All we know is that whatever happened, it must have been widespread and cataclysmic to kill all several hundred of the mammoths on Wrangel Island.

We talked about the dingo in episode 232, about animals that are only semi-domesticated. That episode came out in 2021, and last year Caleb suggested we learn more about the dingo. I found a really interesting 2022 study that re-evaluated the dingo’s genome and made some interesting discoveries.

The dingo was probably brought to Australia by humans somewhere between 3,500 and 8,500 years ago, and after the thylacine was driven to extinction in the early 20th century, it became the continent’s apex predator. Genetic studies in the past have shown that it’s most closely related to the New Guinea singing dog, but the 2022 study compared the dingo’s genome to that of five modern dog breeds, the oldest known dog breed, the basenji, and the Greenland wolf.

The results show that the dingo is genetically in between wolves and dogs, an intermediary that shows us what the dog’s journey to domestication may have looked like. The study also discovered something else interesting. Domestic dogs have multiple copies of a gene that controls digestion, which allows them to eat a wide variety of foods. The dingo only has one copy of that gene, which means it can’t digest a lot of foods that other dogs can. Remember, the dingo has spent thousands of years adapting to eat the native animals of Australia. When white settlers arrived, they would kill dingoes because they thought their livestock was in danger from them. The study shows that the dingo has little to no interest in livestock because it would have trouble digesting, for instance, a lamb or calf. The animals most likely to be hurting livestock are domestic dogs that are allowed to run wild.

We’ll finish with a mystery animal called the lava bear. In the early 20th century, starting in 1917, a strange type of bear kept being seen in Oregon in the United States. Its fur was light brown like a grizzly bear’s, but otherwise it looked like a black bear—except for its size, which was very small. The largest was only about 18 inches tall at the back, or 46 cm, and it only weighed about 35 pounds, or 16 kg. That’s the size of an ordinary dog, not even a big dog. Ordinarily, a black bear can stand 3 feet tall at the back, or about 91 cm, and weighs around 175 pounds, or 79 kg, and a big male can be twice that weight and much taller.

The small bear was seen in desert, especially around old lava beds, which is where it gets its name. A shepherd shot one in 1917, thinking it was a bear cub, and when he retrieved the body he was surprised to find it was an adult. He had it taxidermied and photographs of it were published in the newspapers and a hunting magazine, which brought more hunters to the area.

People speculated that the animal might be an unknown species of bear, possibly related to the grizzly or black bear, and maybe even a new species of sun bear, a small bear native to Asia.

Over the next 17 years, many lava bears were killed by hunters and several were captured for exhibition. When scientists finally got a chance to examine one, they discovered that it was just a black bear. Its small size was due to malnutrition, since it lived in a harsh environment without a lot of food, and its light-colored fur was well within the range of fur color for an American black bear. Lava bears are still occasionally sited in the area around Fossil Lake.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 388: Washington’s Eagle

Further reading:

Audubon’s Bird of Washington: Unraveling the fraud that launched The Birds of America

The Mystery of the Missing John James Audubon Self-Portrait

Washington’s eagle, as painted by Audubon:

The tiny detail in Audubon’s golden eagle painting that is supposed to be a self-portrait:

The golden eagle painting as it was published. Note that there’s no tiny figure in the lower left-hand corner:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This past weekend I was out of town, or to be completely honest I will have been out of town, because I’m getting this episode ready well in advance. Since July 4 was only a few days ago, or will have been only a few days ago, and July 4 is Independence Day in the United States of America, I thought it might be fun to talk about a very American bird, Washington’s eagle.

We talked about it before way back in episode 17, and I updated that information for the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book for its own chapter. When I was researching birds for episode 381 I revisited the topic briefly and realized it’s so interesting that I should just turn it into a full episode.

We only have two known species of eagle in North America, the bald eagle and the North American golden eagle. Both have wingspans that can reach more than 8 feet, or 2.4 meters, and both are relatively common throughout most of North America. But we might have a third eagle, or had one only a few hundred years ago. We might even have a depiction of one by the most famous bird artist in the world, James Audubon.

In February 1814, Audubon was traveling on a boat on the upper Mississippi River when he spotted a big eagle he didn’t recognize. A Canadian fur dealer who was with him said it was a rare eagle that he’d only ever seen around the Great Lakes before, called the great eagle. Audubon was familiar with bald eagles and golden eagles, but he was convinced the “great eagle” was something else.

Audubon made four more sightings over the next few years, including at close range in Kentucky where he was able to watch a pair with a nest and two babies. Two years after that he spotted an adult eagle at a farm near Henderson, Kentucky. Some pigs had just been slaughtered and the eagle was looking for scraps. Audubon shot the bird and took it to a friend who lived nearby, an experienced hunter, and both men examined the body carefully.

According to the notes Audubon made at the time, the bird was a male with a wingspan of 10.2 feet, or just over 3 meters. Since female eagles are generally larger than males, that means this 10-foot wingspan was likely on the smaller side of average for the species. It was dark brown on its upper body, a lighter cinnamon brown underneath, and had a dark bill and yellow legs.

Audubon named the bird Washington’s eagle and used the specimen as a model for a life-sized painting. Audubon was meticulous about details and size, using a double-grid method to make sure his bird paintings were exact. This was long before photography.

So we have a detailed painting and first-hand notes from James Audubon himself about an eagle that…doesn’t appear to exist.

Audubon painted a few birds that went extinct afterwards, including the ivory-billed woodpecker and the passenger pigeon, along with less well-known birds like Bachman’s warbler and the Carolina parakeet. He also made some mistakes. Many people think Washington’s eagle is another mistake and was just an immature bald eagle, which it resembles.

But here’s the problem. Audubon wasn’t always truthful. He painted some birds that he never saw but claimed he did, because another bird illustrator had painted them first. Once he claimed he went hunting with Daniel Boone in Kentucky in 1810, but at that time Boone would have been in his 70s and was living several states away.

Audubon also claimed that he discovered a little bird called Lincoln’s sparrow, but this wasn’t the case. His wife’s transcript of his diary doesn’t match up with the account that Audubon published about the discovery, but magically, when his granddaughter published her version of the diary later, Audubon’s discovery of the sparrow was in it. Historians think his granddaughter changed the diary entry to match up with Audubon’s published claim, and then she burned the original diaries. Further research into Audubon’s published writings have revealed plagiarism, false data, outright lies, and even completely fake species.

Audubon was also patriotic, as evidenced by his naming the eagle after George Washington. His journals and letters are full of praise for Washington, who died in 1799, only fifteen years before Audubon first saw the “great eagle.” There’s always a chance that Audubon wanted to name a bird after his idol, but not just any bird. It had to be majestic and bold, the largest eagle in the world! Maybe he decided to invent one.

Audubon also needed money to continue his work of painting birds, and most of the money came from English nobility. His painting and notes about a gigantic eagle made a real splash, bringing him money and fame for the rest of his life. But no evidence of the eagle’s existence has been discovered in the last 200 years. All we have are one man’s notes, a painting, and some stories of other specimens here and there. What we don’t have are the specimens, not even any feathers.

While we’re talking about one Audubon eagle mystery, let’s learn about another mystery. While Audubon was an incredible painter of birds, he wasn’t all that great at painting people. Only two of his famous bird paintings contain human figures, and one of them is his painting of the golden eagle. The other is a hunter painted in the background of the snowy egret, but Audubon didn’t paint that figure himself. He painted the bird, but hired another artist to paint the background. But this isn’t the case for the golden eagle painting, and that’s where the mystery lies. Even though it’s not technically anything to do with the bird, I know we’re all here for a good mystery too, so let’s talk about this painting.

Most of the time Audubon shot the birds he painted, which isn’t a great thing to do but which was common back then for scientists and collectors to shoot even very rare animals. Few people really understood conservation at the time. In the case of the golden eagle, though, the bird was already so rare in the early 19th century that Audubon couldn’t find one to shoot. He eventually bought one from a museum in 1833—but the bird wasn’t dead. It was injured, and Audubon was so impressed by its beauty that he almost set it free. But he needed to paint the bird, and in order to do that to his own meticulous standard, the bird had to be dead so he could really examine it in detail. So, after wrestling with his conscience, he killed the bird.

He spent the next two weeks drawing, studying, and eventually painting the bird. As soon as he finished, he reportedly had a mental breakdown. Not only had he been painting almost nonstop for years at that point, he really didn’t like killing birds. Plus, in the case of the golden eagle, instead of shooting it from a distance, he had killed it up close in person—as humanely as possible, but he still ended its life, and that bothered him.

The mystery comes from a detail in the painting’s background. The golden eagle is shown in front of a dramatic background of snowy mountains, with a dead snowshoe hare in its talons. But in a tiny detail in the lower left-hand corner, a man is shown crossing a gorge on a fallen tree trunk. Strapped onto the man’s back is a dead golden eagle.

The man is awkwardly rendered, but experts believe it’s a self-portrait of Audubon himself. Some experts believe Audubon included himself with a dead eagle, navigating a perilous climb, to indicate his emotional struggle in killing the bird. But when the painting was eventually included in Audubon’s famous book of bird illustrations, the figure was gone. The gorge with the fallen tree remains, but the little man carrying the dead bird has been painted out.

The question is why. Who made that decision, Audubon himself or the publisher? If Audubon did it, was it because he was embarrassed that he’d included a self-portrait, or was he embarrassed at the poor rendering of his figure, or did he just think it detracted from the painting, or some other reason? If the publisher did it, did he dislike the badly painted little man, or did Audubon ask him to remove the figure, or some other reason? We don’t know, and very likely we’ll never know.

While Audubon reportedly loved birds, it turns out he wasn’t a great human. Besides shooting a whole lot of birds and other animals, sometimes hundreds in a single day, and lying in published scientific papers, he “owned” enslaved people and reportedly made money selling them. (Just saying that sentence makes me so mad. You cannot own people.) In 2023, members of the National Audubon Society called for the group to change its name and drop any mention of Audubon, and when the board of directors said no, a lot of members resigned.

I came into this topic really hoping Washington’s eagle was a real bird, and believing that James Audubon was an artist who loved birds and was an honest man who made some mistakes. Now I’ve discovered that Audubon was a liar and a bad person, and that Washington’s eagle was probably just the result of one of his lies. At least we still have golden eagles, bald eagles, and lots of other amazing birds to admire!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

 

Episode 387: The Link Between Fossils and Folklore

Thanks to Richard from NC for inspiring this episode!

Further reading:

Paleontologists Debunk Popular Claim that Protoceratops Fossils Inspired Legend of Griffin

The Fossil Dragons of Lake Lucerne, Switzerland

The Lindworm statue:

A woolly rhinoceros skull:

A golden collar dated to the 4th century BCE, made by Greek artisans for the Scythians, discovered in Ukraine. The bottom row of figures shows griffins attacking horses:

The Cyclops and a (damaged, polished) elephant skull:

A camahueto statue [photo by De Rjcastillo – Trabajo propio, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=145434346]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about the link between fossils and folklore, a topic inspired by a conversation I had with Richard from North Carolina.

We know that stories about monsters were sometimes inspired by fossils, and we even have an example from episode 53. That was way back in 2018, so let’s talk about it again.

In Klagenfurt in Austria there’s a statue of a dragon, called the lindorm or lindwurm, that was erected in 1593 to commemorate a local story. The story goes that a dragon lived near the lake and on foggy days would leap out of the fog and attack people. Sometimes people could hear its roaring over the noise of the river. Finally the duke had a tower built and filled it with brave knights. They fastened a barbed chain to a collar on a bull, and when the dragon came and swallowed the bull, the chain caught in its throat and tethered it to the tower. The knights came out and killed the dragon.

The original story probably dates to around the 12th century, but it was given new life in 1335 when a skull was found in a local gravel pit. It was clearly a dragon skull and in fact it’s still on display in a local museum. The monument’s artist based the shape of the dragon’s head on the skull. In 1935 the skull was identified as that of a woolly rhinoceros.

In 1989 a folklorist proposed that the legend of the griffin was inspired by protoceratops fossils. The griffin is a mythological creature that’s been depicted in art, writing, and folklore dating back at least 5,000 years, with early variations on the monster dating back as much as 8,000 years. The griffin these days is depicted as a mixture of a lion and an eagle. It has an eagle’s head, wings, and front legs, and it often has long ears, while the rest of its body is that of a lion.

The griffin isn’t a real animal and never was. It has six limbs, for one thing, four legs and two wings, and it also has a mixture of mammal and bird traits. I can confirm that it’s a lot of fun to draw, though, and lots of great stories and books have been written about it in modern times. Ancient depictions of a griffin-like monster have been found throughout much of eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, northern Africa, and central Asia. Much of what we know about the griffin legend comes from ancient Greek and Roman stories, but they in turn got at least some of their stories from ancient Scythia. That’s important for the hypothesis that the griffin legend was inspired by protoceratops fossils.

Protoceratops lived between 75 and 71 million years ago and its fossils have been found in parts of China and Mongolia. It was a ceratopsian but it didn’t belong to the family Ceratopsidae, which includes Triceratops. It grew up to about 8 feet long, or 2.5 meters, with a big skull and a neck frill, but while that sounds big, it actually was on the small size for a ceratopsian. At most it would have barely stood waist-high to an average human, so while it was heavy and compact, it was probably smaller, if not lighter, than a modern lion. It ate plants and while it had teeth, it also had a beak, sort of like a turtle’s beak.

Folklorist Adrienne Mayor published a number of papers and a book in the 1990s discussing the links between protoceratops fossils and the griffin legend. The fossils are fairly common in parts of Mongolia and China, and Mayor pointed out that the beak combined with four legs would have suggested a four-footed animal with a bird’s head. She suggested that the head frill might have been interpreted as wings.

As for the Scythians, which we talked about a few minutes ago, they were a nomadic people who ruled much of west and central Asia and part of eastern Europe up to about 300 BCE. They were skilled in metalworking and loved gold, so even though they didn’t have a system of writing, we have some of their metal artifacts found by archaeologists. The Scythians were so important to the ancient world that we know a lot about them from other cultures, especially the ancient Greeks, Persians, and Assyrians.

We know the griffin appeared in Scythian mythology because it’s depicted on some decorative metal items. We also have ancient stories about griffins loving gold and either battling people to steal gold, or mining gold that people stole from them, or some other variation. Scythians had elaborate trade routes that connected Asia and Europe, and as I mentioned, they were hugely influential. I mean, we’re still telling versions of monster stories that the Scythians probably came up with originally.

Mayor suggested that the Scythians found protoceratops fossils while prospecting for gold, thought they were the bones of the monster we now call a griffin, and spread stories about them throughout Eurasia. It sounds plausible, so much so that no one really investigated the story until recently.

Just last week as this episode goes live, a new study has been published by a team of paleontologists about the griffin-protoceratops connection. They worked with historians and archaeologists to determine when and where (and if) the Scythians might have discovered protoceratops fossils.

It turns out that they probably wouldn’t have, certainly not while prospecting or mining gold. Gold has never been found anywhere near protoceratops fossils, and in fact the known gold deposits in central Asia occur hundreds of kilometers away from the fossils found so far. Not only that, it would be very rare to find more than a little bit of fossilized bone sticking out of the rock in most cases.

The spread of the griffin in art doesn’t seem to have begun in central Asia, for that matter, and even the earliest artwork doesn’t seem to be very protoceratops-like. The head isn’t huge in comparison to the body, for instance. Early griffins were commonly depicted as lions with an eagle’s head, but sometimes they were depicted as eagles with a lion’s head.

That doesn’t mean that protoceratops fossils didn’t influence griffin mythology at some point, just that it didn’t seem to happen the way Mayor claimed it did.

Another common connection between a fossil and a mythical monster is likewise just speculation. The skulls of elephants and their ancestors have a big opening in the front that looks like a giant eyesocket, but which is where the trunk was located. The eyes are much smaller and more on the sides of the head, and the skull itself does somewhat resemble a really big human skull. The Cyclops, or Cyclopes, was a giant from ancient Greek myth with one eye in the middle of its face instead of the usual two eyes. Is there really a connection between some kind of elephant skull and the Cyclops?

The connection was first suggested in 1914 by a paleontologist named Othenio Abel, who suggested that skulls from dwarf elephants had inspired the myth. Before about 500 BCE, the ancient Greeks didn’t know what elephants were, and the dwarf elephants that once lived in the area went extinct about 20,000 years ago. Sicily and Malta in particular had been home to various species of dwarf elephant for half a million years, so it’s possible that elephant remains were occasionally discovered in the area. Our griffin-protoceratops friend Adrienne Mayor agrees, but there’s no proof either way of this happening.

Stories of dragons living on Mount Pilatus in Switzerland may have been inspired by the pterosaur fossils that are frequently found in the area. In 1649 a man named Christopher Schorer reported seeing a fiery dragon fly from a cave in the side of Mount Pilatus to another mountain, although he admitted that at first he thought it was a meteor. It was probably a meteor, in fact, but he convinced himself it had to be a dragon because they were known to live on the mountain. A so-called dragon skeleton found near the mountain in 1602 had reportedly been crushed flat by rocks during an earthquake, but once science caught up with the finding, it was determined to be a fossilized pterodactyl.

In many parts of the world, especially China, fossilized bones are called dragon bones, but the dragon as a mythological creature probably came first. This is probably the case for a lot of folklore monsters and animals. The story came first, and once fossils were found in the area, they were seen as proof that the story was true.

In Patagonia in South America, there’s a Chilote legend of a monster called the camahueto. When it’s grown it lives in the ocean, but it starts out life living underground. Eventually it picks a stormy night, and it emerges from the ground and rushes toward the ocean, destroying everything in its path. Its single horn may gouge a channel in the ground for a new stream to form, or it may actually live in a river as a young animal and migrate to the ocean as an adult.

An animal named Trigodon once lived in Patagonia. It was a notoungulate, part of an extinct order of hoofed animals that lived throughout South America. It was probably most closely related to rhinoceroses, horses, and other odd-toed ungulates, but it and its relatives are completely extinct with no living descendants.

Trigodon was big and heavy, probably resembling a rhinoceros in many ways, and that includes having a single short horn on its head. On its forehead, in fact, pointing straight forward. It probably wasn’t a true horn but it was a protuberance of the skull. We don’t know if it was covered with skin and hair like an ossicone, a keratin sheath like a true horn, or if it was more like a rhinoceros horn. It might have been something completely different that’s currently unknown among living animals.

Trigodon went extinct around 4 million years ago, as far as we know, but other notoungulates only went extinct around 12,000 years ago. We don’t know very much about most of them, but we do know that at least one other species had a forehead horn like Trigodon’s. It’s always possible that a rhinoceros-like one-horned animal was still alive when humans first settled Patagonia, and that it was so big and scary it inspired stories about the monster Camahueto, a bull with a single horn on its forehead.

Then again, consider the story about the camahueto. It lives underground or in rivers when it’s young, and travels to the sea only during a storm. That might just be a story used to explain earthquakes that open fissures in the ground, and other natural phenomena. Then again, it might have been inspired by fossilized trigodon skulls that are washed out of the ground by torrential rain or rivers. That’s just my theory, though, but it’s fun to speculate.

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